This is an excerpt from Robert Martin’s novel, Boxcar
The Lioness was built at the factory where Bennet had worked for the last fifteen years. For all its hood and trunk it only had two doors: half muscle car, half sedan. Nobody in America had wanted it, so the model was discontinued quickly. It’s why Bennet could afford the car in the first place.
He woke up in the Lioness’s passenger seat not knowing where he was. The engine was running. In front of him, a blank stucco wall looked soft enough to put his fist through. He reached for the door handle but Lisa came back and slid behind the wheel. With one hand she buckled her seatbelt, with the other she dropped a plastic bag onto Bennet’s lap and said, “Grab me one, too.”
“What is this?”
“You’re welcome. And I’d like one, too, please.”
Lisa steered with her knees as soon as she hit the freeway. She reached into the bag and removed a beer, popped it open and drained it. She dropped the empty to the abyss beneath the seat. She said, “You want to know who I am, where I’m taking you, that sort of thing.”
“I want to know why you’re driving my car.”
“I’m driving because you sat down in the passenger seat and fell asleep.”
“I hit that man,” Bennet said. Images rose to Bennet’s mind, the bald man’s wobbling jaw, the bartender’s tattoo. “That was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Lisa nodded at this. “You want to grab me another one?”
“You shouldn’t be drinking.”
“Yeah, well, you’re right,” said Lisa. “So are you going to give me a beer or not?”
Bennet lifted the remaining five beers from the sack by the plastic ring. Lisa reached over and snapped one off like a grape. She was higher up than Bennet, a long torso, and extremely skinny. Bennet hadn’t noticed that she was skinny. Her neck was pale; he could see the blood in her veins.
“You want to know why I’m running away?” she asked.
“I want to know where my finger is,” Bennet said, looking at the tip of his middle finger, missing a nail and a knuckle short but otherwise unremarkable—just a hood of skin, a slight vein of a scar long since healed.
Lisa straightened her own fingers against the wheel. “Probably won’t matter in a couple of days anyway,” she said.
“I learned that punch,” he snapped his elbow a couple of times, repeating the motion he’d made to knock the man’s jaw out of socket. “I learned that from a movie. Sorry about your dad,” he said.
Lisa laughed in a single, punctuated burst. “That wasn’t my dad,” she said. “He sure tried to be, though.”
Bennet fingered the latch of his glove compartment, foreign-looking from this angle. The first time he’d sat in this machine, his whole life had been ahead of him. A young man with a union job. A young man with a car. He didn’t feel essentially different from that version of himself, though in the decade that had passed the world had changed substantially. Buildings were taller, TV had become more violent, and these days strangers with money sometimes drove you around. He’d never sat in his own passenger seat. He felt a pressure on his lap and stiffened.
“Don’t make me drink alone,” she said, forcing a beer onto his lap. “How’d you lose your finger?”
Bennet pressed the meat of his hand into his eyeball. When he pulled his hand off his eye he saw that the world outside was all shapes and colors. “And sounds and smells and feels,” he said. “That’s all this is.”
Lisa belched into the wind and turned to him. “You’re a troubled guy,” she asserted. “I must be crazier than you are to get into a car with you.”
He said, “Some days I’m good. Today isn’t one of my good days. I’ve been alone a lot lately. I think I forgot how to be with people. I won’t ever hurt you,” he told her, though this felt unprovoked and perhaps unwarranted. She didn’t respond, like maybe it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. He said, “All this driving around, makes me feel a little…”
“You’re not gonna throat punch me while I’m driving?”
He didn’t know why, but this made him grin. She was teasing him. He said, “Why do you have all that money?”
Lisa checked her mirror and changed lanes. “What if I told you I stole it?” she said.
“From the guy?”
Lisa nodded, a shudder in her little dimpled chin.
Bennet said, “That guy was an asshole,” which he could tell at once she didn’t agree with. He elaborated. “All he wanted to do was talk. He kept on saying ‘let’s go talk about this, we can talk about it.’ To me, that’s an asshole. Talking and talking, like words are what’s real and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. I’d rather be quiet and have a lot of money and this cool car and some beer. You know what I’m saying?”
“Not in the slightest, but that’s okay.” Lisa punched the gas and zoomed around a semi truck. Blank fields swarmed around them on all sides, all cut grasses and dry dirt. They were headed nowhere, from nowhere, and they had to speed through a bunch of nowhere to get there. “You think this is a cool car?” Lisa questioned him.
She took an exit onto a two-lane road. Some of the silos lined up on the hillsides looked familiar.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“You haven’t told me where you want to go. So we’re just driving around. Just digging up the earth and burning it,” she said. She rolled her window all the way down. The wind did funny things to her hair, lifting her bangs in a unified plank, like a drawbridge. Her elbow, resting on the rubber seal, was at a better angle to hold the beer on her knee. She yelled more things to Bennet but the wind, warm and loud, carried everything away.
When he woke up for the final time it was because the hood wheezed upward in front of him, blocking a column of white and gray trouble rising from the engine. Bennet opened his door, stepping through a minefield of grumpy nerve-endings, and walked around to the front of the car.
Lisa cursed and spat and stuck her thumb in her mouth. “I don’t know anything about cars,” she said. “What’s wrong with it?” She had cut off all of her hair and wore bug-eyed sunglasses. She looked like an alien.
Bennet waved at the smoke and steam but he couldn’t chase it off. “It’s broken,” he said. He felt amazing, intelligent, human. Like any minute now the world would come into focus, and everything would be explained. He shook his sleepy feet out one after another and stepped off the shoulder, unzipped his pants, and enjoyed history’s longest piss.
“What’d you do to your hair?” he asked the wind.
“Fuck,” she said. “I wrecked your car.”
“I liked your hair.”
“Me, too,” Lisa said with a sad little laugh.
“Your hair was pretty.”
“That’s a nice thing to say. Look at you, saying nice things.” She licked her thumb and then spat. “So what do we do?”
Bennet hoisted his pants and zipped them. They fell back to where they’d been, low on his hips. “Poor Lioness,” he said.
“We walk to the next town and call a tow truck, is what we do.”
“The Lioness. I had no idea. I’d been calling her Verona.”
“She’s toast. It’s been a good run.”
“Why’d you cut your hair?” he asked.
“I’m a wanted woman. Or I’m a punk rocker.” She looked at her reflection in the Lioness’s window. “It’s one of the more endurable side effects,” she said, and opened the door to grab her paper sack of money, which seemed noticeably fuller. Bennet saw a lock of her hair curling through the opening.
“Side effects,” he repeated. “This might sound weird, but back at the bar, did you say those words for me?”
“Sounds a little weird. Explain.”
They started walking up the shoulder, the same direction the steaming Lioness was facing. “I wanted to say something but couldn’t, and a second later you said what I wanted to say.”
“I’m so curious. What was it?”
“It was ‘I’m sorry,’ I think.”
“Oh, well, that’s a little sad.”
“Yeah. But it made me happy that you said it. Because I really wanted to say it.”
“But you couldn’t.”
Bennet shook his head.
Lisa said, “I think we’re each in tougher spots than either of us realize. This will be interesting.” A car passed by superfast and Lisa veered into Bennet’s shoulder. Bennet didn’t mind.
They walked what a green sign declared was a mile and a half but it felt like days. The highway was a low point in the middle of short, gradual hills, each of which shone with verdant crops in distressingly straight rows. Halfway up an off-ramp Lisa said to Bennet, “It’s my birthday.”
Bennet looked at her alien skull and said, “Mine, too.”
Lisa reached through the wooden slats of a fence to pick a handful of hay an un-shy pygmy goat had just shat on. When she shook the hay free of turds—oddly complete, dry artifacts—the goat bleated and took three stilted steps toward her, sniffing at it. “These things will eat anything,” she said.
“So tell me again. I beat up your boyfriend and now you love me forever?” He tossed a small stone at the goat but missed.
“He wasn’t my boyfriend,” Lisa said, “and don’t flatter yourself. I only loved you for your car, and, well. Shoot. Do you have any clean hay?” She dropped the handful inside the goat’s stall. “These things never stop pooping, it’s incredible. It’s so efficient. Eat constantly, poop constantly. Like a factory, input, output. Why don’t we just poop constantly? What’s the point of not pooping constantly?”
“If we can find a factory, I can work there,” Bennet said. “Or anywhere. That’s what’s next for me, I think. Back to work.”
From her crouch, Lisa made general noises of accord. In the stall next to the goat, a calf cowered in the shadows. It stared at Bennet with coquettish eyes and smelled like coffee sweetener, chalky and slightly pharmaceutical.
The sun was a bright spot in the sky nearly directly above the silo, shining like the dot above a lowercase i. The farmer who owned these animals, who had offered to tow the Lioness with his tractor, returned from his house with a plateful of sweaty cheese cut into finger-sized hunks. He wore a nice shirt tucked into jeans. The shirt seemed to have lots of colors in its thread, so when he moved through the sunlight it shifted from blue to violet like the petals on a flower. Bennet had never seen a farmer like this.
The farmer said, “I called for a tow but it’ll be a while and I fear mighty pricey.”
Bennet said, “If you pay for the tow you can keep the car.”
Lisa flung the handful of hay toward the goat and stood up. “I don’t know,” she said.
The farmer smiled but refused the offer based on logic. “If I was to keep it, why would I want to tow it somewhere else?”
Bennet ate a finger of cheese. “To get it fixed. If you want it.” He took another hunk. The cheese was delicious. He winked at Lisa.
The farmer said, “Well, then the tow would be up to me, so paying for it wouldn’t be conditional. Basically you’re just giving me a car right here right now. Doesn’t sound like you’ve thought this through.” He offered his plate to Lisa, who was agreeing with everything the farmer said. She snatched a piece into her mouth. Her cheek distended until she chewed it down, and for those few seconds the lump on the side of her face mimicked the roundness of her hairless head.
She closed her eyes as she swallowed. “Delicious. What is this?”
“Havarti. I make it. Sell it at the farmer’s market. We wear hats like cow udders, have you seen us? This side’s a cheddar.”
Lisa tried the cheddar. “We’re broke, is why we can’t afford a tow.”
“Well, I’ll let you all figure out what you want to do about the car, but the cheese is on me. Nothing cures a bad day like good cheese.”
“This is a bad day,” Bennet said, noting the characteristics, filing them away so he could compare future days to this one and see if they were also bad days. He tongued a pill of cheese from behind his molars.
“It’s our birthday,” Lisa smiled.
“You twins?” the farmer asked. He looked from one to the other and nodded, as though he could see a resemblance. “I tell you what. You don’t worry about the car. Let me pay for the tow.” He handed the plate with its few remaining slabs to Bennet. “You like the cheddar? Let me grab a brick for the road.”
“Oh,” Lisa said. “That’s too much. Please,” but the farmer put his hands up that he wouldn’t have it and disappeared back into his house.
Bennet told the back of Lisa’s head, “You shouldn’t have cut all your hair off.” He spat the pill of cheese he’d been rolling around his mouth to the ground.
“Was that a tooth?” Lisa asked.
Bennet shook his head. “It just fell out.”
“Just now? What happened?”
“It wanted out,” he shrugged. “I let it out.”
“You’re getting weird again,” she warned him.
“Give me a second,” he said, and he took the farmer’s plate, which they’d cleaned, and flung it like a discus into the air.
Lisa raised her hands and let them fall to her side, defeated. The plate sailed in a long arc, hovering atop the leveling light out toward the highway. It glided downward in a smooth, harmless descent. When it touched the driveway it shattered in a puff of dust. A glinting sound arrived a half-second later.
Bennet rushed to examine it: it had become hundreds of triangles.
“That was a jerk move,” Lisa said, catching up to him. “Such a nice farmer. He was helping us. He was going to fix the Lioness. And you just broke his plate for no reason.”
Shards glinted all over the road, a panic of shapes. Bennet said, “It wasn’t going to stay a plate forever.”
“It would have stayed a plate longer if you hadn’t thrown it.”
Bennet brushed his hands on his pants and glanced back at the farmhouse. The farmer was there in the driveway, looking at them. He waved and raised his hands in question. Bennet waved back, gave the farmer a thumbs up, and started walking toward the main road. He kept his thumb extended. He said, “Like that’s some great thing. Being a plate.”
This is an excerpt from Boxcar, a novel in four parts by Robert Martin. Read the other excerpts here.
Front page image by Max Klingensmith.